Means of Production

Sunil Shanbag’s life in the theatre

01 June, 2014

"I’LL JUST SHOW YOU SOME IMAGES,” Sunil Shanbag said, and what had begun as a talk about his life and work quickly turned into a multimedia presentation on Mumbai theatre in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a December evening in 2012, and the National Gallery of Modern Art’s midsize auditorium in Bangalore, where Shanbag was speaking, was more than half full. Many in the audience were young performance-makers, dancers and writers—an indication of the growing interest the Mumbai-based director’s work has attracted in the rest of India. Over the years, the work done by Theatre Arpana, which Shanbag leads, has grown in scale, as has its ability to draw large audiences in urban India. From the landmark Cotton 56, Polyester 84, a 2006 play about the lives of Mumbai’s textile-mill workers, Arpana has expanded to stage productions such as Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon, an adaptation of All’s Well That Ends Well, which Shanbag took to the World Shakespeare Festival in the UK in 2012, and which played five shows at the Globe in London early last month.

That day in Bangalore, Shanbag took a look back on his forty years in theatre, working variously as an actor, a producer, lighting designer and director. A short man with a slight stoop and a turtle tattoo on the left side of his neck, Shanbag was dressed as he usually is: monochrome linen shirt, worn untucked with sleeves rolled up, formal trousers and simple shoes. He sported his signature salt-and-pepper goatee, and a pair of spectacles on a band that are more often on his head or inches above his eyebrows than on his nose. He propped himself against a desk, and there was dim lighting from the front so as not to interfere with the photographs he was projecting onto a white backdrop.

Cotton 56, Polyester 84, premiered to great acclaim by Theatre Arpana in 2006, marked a new style of work for Shanbag. courtesy Kartikeyan Shiva

The photographs were stills from productions by the legendary theatre director Satyadev Dubey, a man Shanbag described as his “surrogate father.” Taken together, they formed a visual biography of Shanbag’s own artistic endeavours, from the first professional play he ever worked on, a 1974 production of Aur Ek Garbo—Dubey’s take on the Marathi playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Garbo—to a 1980 production of Chowkidaar, his first directorial venture, based on Dubey’s Hindi translation of the classic Harold Pinter play The Caretaker. The photos paid tribute to the place of Dubey’s company, Theatre Unit, in the history of Indian theatre, and to the unique dramatic tradition that Dubey established. In the 1960s and 1970s, Dubey was central to the “national theatre” being imagined at the time, with the help of a generation of now legendary performance-makers such as Kavalam Narayana Panikkar, Ratan Thiyyam, Girish Karnad and BV Karanth. Dubey had a prominent role in this effort: not only did he “discover” (in his own typically immodest phrasing) and premiere classics of the time such as Dharamvir Bharati’s Andha Yug and Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana, he was also one of the prime movers behind the efflorescence of Hindi and Marathi playwriting in the 1970s.

The slideshow focused on Shanbag’s apprenticeship with Dubey. Outside the frame of those photographs, and largely unmentioned that evening, there was also another person whose influence jostled with Dubey’s in the making of Shanbag. A key chapter in Shanbag’s artistic life, one that fundamentally shaped his political outlook, was his relationship with his sister, Anuradha Ghandy. A legendary Maoist leader, Ghandy was instrumental in forming the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights, and spent more than two decades working with the Communist Party of India (Maoist), mostly underground among tribal populations in the Dandakaranya region in central India. As a young woman, aged just fifteen, she had written letters to her younger brother discussing issues like the nationalisation of banks and the abolition of privy purses. Shanbag’s unwavering belief, that “my work has to have some meaning,” could at least partly be traced back to the schooling Ghandy gave him in politics and history.

Shanbag’s political outlook was fundamentally shaped by his sister Anuradha Ghandy, a legendary Maoist leader who died in 2008. COURTESY SUNIL SHANBAG

So, perhaps, could the elisions and silences of the politics of this work, particularly in Shanbag’s more recent productions. Situated between Anuradha’s radical leftism, and Dubey’s maverick cultural politics (he was as given to pro-Hindutva sentiment as he was committed to the work of the Marxist playwright GP Deshpande), Shanbag’s theatre represents the conflicts of his own artistic and intellectual development.

It was vintage Shanbag in front of the audience in Bangalore that day, holding forth on themes he constantly returns to in conversation: memory, tradition and history. Always conscious of tradition, his favourite phrase to damn younger performance-makers whose work he dislikes is, “Arre, where is their sense of tradition? Yaar, they only watch American sitcoms.”

SHANBAG WAS BORN ON 7 OCTOBER 1956 to Ganesh Shanbag and Kumud Chaudhary, communists who met at the historic Dalvi Building in Mumbai, which houses the city headquarters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the office of the Girni Kamgar Union of the mill workers from the Girangaon area of central Mumbai. Ganesh was a junior lawyer in the office of T Godivala, who represented the mill-workers’ union; Kumud was a member of the All India Students’ Federation who later worked with the India Council for Medical Research, and eventually joined the Mumbai-based NGO Vacha, which focuses on issues of gender discrimination. Shanbag told me that his parents’ political contributions ranged from joining war relief efforts during the Sino-Indian War in 1962 to campaigning for the former defence minister VK Krishna Menon in the 1967 elections, when he stood as an independent candidate in Bombay North-East. Dear as they held communism, they were not card-carrying party members, Shanbag reminded me, but were, in fact, Nehruvian socialists. “Our house did not have a single portrait of god,” he said. “But we had a huge framed photo of Nehru.”

Shanbag had his first brush with theatre in the late 1960s, at the residential Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh, which was one of the few schools in the country with a full-time drama teacher at the time, whose job it was to stage two productions every term. Because the school was founded by the philosopher and spiritual writer J Krishnamurti, and because of Rishi Valley’s hippie charm in the 1960s and 1970s, the students got to work with several visiting artists. “We’d get these freaky people coming to campus,” Shanbag said. Among them was a French woman whose name he could not recall, who directed “a strange production” of Rabindranath Tagore’s Dak Ghar. (That production was to stay with Shanbag for over four decades, until he found a new framing narrative for it—that of the Polish literary figure Janusz Korczak, who staged Dak Ghar in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust with a cast of children in order to prepare them for what he saw as inevitable death in the concentration camps—and developed it into Walking to the Sun, for which I wrote the script.)

Sex, Morality and Censorship signalled a gradual shift in Shanbag’s emphasis, from political history to performance traditions. courtesy Kartikeyan Shiva

The school was also visited by a young Roshan Seth, straight out of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, long before he starred as Jawaharlal Nehru in Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi. It was Seth who inspired Shanbag to imagine the possibility of making a living off theatre. But the formative moment arrived when Dina Pathak, a veteran actor and director, directed a Hindi adaptation of a traditional Gujarati bhavai drama. The first time he spoke Hindi on stage for that play, Shanbag said, “I knew what to do with my hands. They didn’t seem awkward anymore. I just felt completely rooted in the language.”

As if guided by fate, in the summer holidays of 1973 Shanbag accompanied Ratna Pathak, his friend and Pathak’s daughter, to watch Pathak perform at a three-day festival of Hindi plays in Mumbai. A play they saw on the second day—Dubey’s production of Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana— “completely blew my mind,” Shanbag said. Sitting amid the sparse audience in a dark, six-hundred-seat auditorium, Shanbag watched the original, and formidable, cast that Dubey directed: Amrish Puri, Amol Palekar, Sunila Pradhan, and Pathak playing the Kali-ma character. When he went backstage after the performance, Shanbag was shocked to see Palekar smoking because “Devadutta”— the protagonist of Hayavadana —“couldn’t be smoking a cigarette!” The play’s impact on Shanbag was so strong that he vowed to come back to the theatre.

That year, Shanbag returned home to find it had become “a battleground of political ideologies,” between Anuradha, the increasingly radical leftist, and their Nehruvian-socialist father. Shanbag went to Elphinstone College in Mumbai—from where he got a Bachelors’ degree in Political Science—because, he said, “my sister went there. Of course, I had to go there.” Anuradha decided her young brother “needed a bit of social reality,” Shanbag remembered. She recruited him to teach English to children in a predominantly Dalit chawl in the neighbourhood of Worli. In Anuradha’s company, Shanbag witnessed the Hindu supremacist Shiv Sena’s attacks on Dalit colonies in the area, which followed the party’s clashes with the city’s Dalit Panthers outfit.

The actor Amrish Puri (left), Satyadev Dubey (centre) and Sunil Shanbag perform in Dubey’s 1974 production of Aur Ek Garbo. courtesy Rajdatt Arts

It was a tumultuous time in India. In May 1974, the Great Railway Strike led by the unionist and politician George Fernandes, perhaps one of the biggest industrial actions in labour history, was brutally repressed by state authorities. In 1975, the Indira Gandhi government declared the Emergency. It was in this politically charged atmosphere that Shanbag came into contact with Dubey, a man with whom he would, over the next decade, spend nearly every waking hour, and to whom Shanbag’s father would once declare: “Dubey saab, I have surrendered my son to you.”

A FEW YEARS AGO, the Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai brought out T-shirts that punned on the acronym of the National School of Drama—“NSD: National School of Dubey”. If such a school did exist, Shanbag would perhaps be its most illustrious alumnus.

Shanbag met Dubey a year after he saw Hayavadana; once again, the Pathaks were responsible. One afternoon in the summer of 1974, Dubey walked into the family’s home in Five Gardens, in the Dadar neighbourhood, while Shanbag was visiting. They were briefly introduced to each other. A few days later, Ratna asked Shanbag if he would be interested in playing the character of Pansy, an art school dropout, in a new production that Dubey was directing. Dubey, typically, had argued with the actor Chitra Palekar, who was originally cast in this role, and was seeking a replacement. Desperate, Dubey remembered the slight, fresh-faced boy he met at the Pathaks’ home.

That play, Aur Ek Garbo, opened up a new world for Shanbag. It explored the lives of a generation of frustrated young immigrants struggling to find a sense of belonging in Mumbai. “In those days, you had to be interested in questions of what your art meant in society, what was its function, the relationship between form and content,” Shanbag said. “Or nobody took you seriously.”

It was a steep learning curve, and Dubey was a relentless taskmaster. Shanbag was soon absorbed into other aspects of theatre: “from doing lights to managing backstage to production work to organising after-show parties.” The actor Akash Khurana, who became a long-time friend and later a co-founder of Theatre Arpana, joined Theatre Unit at around the same time as Shanbag. He told me Shanbag was a natural foil to the often erratic ways of Dubey. “While Dubey indulged in his impassioned and brilliant escapades as a director of ground-breaking theatre, Sunil soldiered on,” he said, “imbibing everything that needed to be from Dubey’s genius.” It was perhaps training with Dubey that made Shanbag “the most consummate theatre person around,” Khurana said. It also instilled in him a lifelong disdain for those who refuse to engage in the technical aspects of production. (These are the people Shanbag contemptuously calls “theoretical Brahmins.”)

As Shanbag became more involved with Theatre Unit, his chances of working outside of it grew scarcer. Dubey was extremely possessive of his protégés. In spite of being something of a connector within the emerging national theatre community, Dubey disapproved strongly of members of his team working with other directors. In any case, Theatre Unit’s average of fifty to sixty shows a year didn’t leave time for much else. Going to a formal school such as the National School of Drama or working in English theatre was unthinkable; Dubey disdained both, and, Shanbag said, “his prejudices became your prejudices.” To sate his appetite for experience with other directors and groups, Shanbag began lighting their show during a brief stint as an apprentice to a commercial theatre lights supplier. (Shanbag’s skill with lighting is now a feature of his work; he always works closely with the lighting designer—of late, the indispensable Hidayat Sami—and makes lights integral to the theatrical experience, rather than simply the primary source of illumination.)

The technical experience came in handy when, in the early 1970s, the Marathi thespians Arvind and Sulabha Deshpande, who ran the Awishkar group, opened their rehearsal and performance space in Mumbai to other theatre professionals and enthusiasts. It was here, on the third floor of the Chhabildas Boys’ High School in Dadar, that the Chhabildas movement came into being. In the evenings and over weekends, the school auditorium became a theatre with makeshift seating. In a city where commercial venues were rapidly becoming too expensive for most theatre groups, the Chhabildas movement sustained experimental theatre until the Prithvi Theatre opened in 1978. Shanbag was actively involved in plays staged at Chhabildas, lighting a number of them. “This was the first time,” Shanbag said, “that we in Bombay got a sense that we were part of a larger national theatre scene.”

A young Sunil Shanbag, seated in front of a festival poster at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre, in 1980. courtesy Sunil Shanbag

Back in Theatre Unit, Dubey began to sense that some of the group’s young members were restless. He suggested that Shanbag, Akash Khurana and the actor Harish Patel direct a production of Chowkidar, his Hindi translation of The Caretaker. The three put together a well-received adaptation. Khurana recalled Shanbag’s natural skill with the “the dynamics of blocking scenes,” which continues to characterise his productions even today. In 1982, Dubey asked Shanbag to direct his play Aada Chautal. Directing independently for the first time, Shanbag realised that “direction is not such a bad idea. You get to do a lot of interesting things.” Soon after the play was staged, Dubey called Shanbag and Khurana aside and told them to form their own group. “As long as you’re with me, people will say ‘It’s Dubey’s work,’” he told them.

As Shanbag and Khurana left Theatre Unit, Dubey ensured that his legacy as their mentor would persist; he bestowed the name of their new group. Shanbag acted Dubey’s pronouncement out for me, imitating the stereotyped character of an evil king from the kind of satirical street plays he hates: “‘Jao, tumhare group ka naam hoga Arpana.’” (Proceed. Your group will be named Arpana.)

“What to do,” Shanbag said, laughing. “We’re stuck with it now. I don’t even like the name much.” He rolled the name around in his mouth, as if to see if it would taste any better, “Arpana. Arpana.”

I MET DUBEY IN OCTOBER 2010 at the cast party for Walking to the Sun, the Shanbag production for which I wrote the script. Then seventy-five years old, Dubey looked frail, but was still as intimidating as ever. Contrary to all expectations, he spoke softly, and spent most of his time whispering to Shanbag. Their camaraderie was evident, as was Dubey’s pride in Shanbag’s work. It was Shanbag with whom Dubey went to Delhi to receive his Padma Bhushan in 2011. In one of his last interviews, published on the news site Rediff six months before his death in December 2012, Dubey said, “I would say that Sunil Shanbag is the person whose career I am fond of … I would like to see him grow. He is a challenge. He is still doing very fine work though I don’t think he has taken anything directly from me.”

Through the 1980s, the shadow of Dubey loomed large over Arpana. The very first production Shanbag directed for the group was a double bill of Striptease and Circus (1986), both by the Polish playwright Slawomir Mrozek, who was one of Dubey’s favourites. Two other early Arpana productions were Hindi translations of plays that Dubey had premiered in Marathi, Elkunchwar’s Pratibimb and Shanta Gokhale’s Avinash.

By this point, Shanbag had also begun working in the media outside of theatre. He acted in Shyam Benegal’s 1981 film Kalyug, and co-wrote some of Doordarshan’s most memorable television series, including Bharat Ek Khoj (1987–89) and Yatra (1986). In 1991, he co-wrote the Shabana Azmi-Om Puri starrer Antarnaad with the co-writer of Yatra, Shama Zaidi. From 1990 to 1992, Shanbag also developed the concept and led production for the first seventy-two weeks of Surabhi, Doordarshan’s popular culture-magazine show.

In the first week of December 1992, Shanbag and the filmmaker Arunabh Bhattacharjee set out for Maihar, in Madhya Pradesh. Their goal was to make a film about the Maihar gharana of Hindustani music, formed by the renowned composer and music teacher Allauddin Khan, and sustained by a constellation of his star students including his son Ali Akbar Khan, his daughter Annapurna Devi, Ravi Shankar, Nikhil Banerjee and Pannalal Ghosh. Shanbag and Bhattacharjee wanted to document the changes the gharana had undergone, and the decline of its tradition. They did so in quiet isolation just as a violent new chapter of Indian history was being created.

Shanbag took Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon, an adaptation of All’s Well That Ends Well, to the World Shakespeare Festival in 2012. courtesy Vivek Venkatraman

On 6 December 1992, mobs led by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, and large parts of India, including Mumbai, were engulfed in communal violence. In somnolent Maihar, waiting out the mayhem, Shanbag chanced upon an obscure disciple of Allauddin Khan: the Sri Lanka-born David Saab, a student of music and colourful local character unknown outside his circle of friends, who had promised his guru that he would never leave Maihar. Shanbag felt a shock of recognition—“My god, this is me!”—and made David the unlikely protagonist of the film, Maihar Raag, which contrasted David’s earthiness with the affectations of Allauddin Khan’s better-known pupils. The film, which won the 1994 National Award for Best Non-Feature Film, also chronicled the decline of the Maihar gharana, and explored an apprentice’s search for his own identity.

Maihar Raag was a key moment in Shanbag’s process of stepping out of Dubey’s shadow. Still, after Arpana’s inception, it took over a decade for him to find a distinct artistic voice, which he finally did with the 1997 double bill of Do Quame and Khel Khel Mein. The first play was an adaptation of Saadat Hasan Manto’s story of the same name, while the second was adapted from Nirmal Verma’s translation of Milan Kundera’s short story The Hitch-Hiking Game. Shanta Gokhale, a knowledgeable eyewitness of Mumbai’s theatre scene over the last four decades, suggested to me that these plays were “a move away from a single authorial voice,” and a step towards Shanbag’s later, more research-based work. In adapting the two short stories to the stage, Shanbag was already honing the hands-on approach to script development that would become an integral part of his style after Cotton 56, Polyester 84.

In the early days of Arpana, when he was struggling to find his own voice, Shanbag resolutely refused to discuss his theatre work with Dubey, or to invite him to watch rehearsals or run-throughs. “Dubey would be dying to come,” he remembered. “He would slip in uninvited during tech runs at Prithvi and offer suggestions as gently as it was humanly possible for someone like him.” While their personal relationship only grew stronger, and although Shanbag still helped Dubey from time to time, they never worked together again. By the mid 2000s, Dubey was a living legend, often found holding forth on theatre to a circle of admirers and protégés at the Prithvi Theatre, and Shanbag, then in his fifties, was finally an established director following the success of Cotton 56, Polyester 84. Gradually, Shanbag found it easier to involve Dubey in his work: age had mellowed the guru, and the shishya had been recognised as a master in his own right.

AFTER MAIHAR RAAG, Shanbag teamed up with Bhattacharjee on a number of documentary films, from Purush (1994), which looked at men in Indian classical dance and featured Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra and Pandit Birju Maharaj, to Blessed by the Plague (1998–99) which focused on Surat’s transformation from the “?lthiest city in India” to perhaps the cleanest. He also worked on a number of films for the NGO Navdanya, with which his wife, Reetha Balsavar, was associated. Shanbag did very little theatre through these years; in Shanta Gokhale’s words, he was “lost to the stage.”

Then, in 2006, Shanbag heard that the playwright Ramu Ramanathan was “hanging around the working-class areas, talking to mill workers.” It had been something of a long-standing dream for Shanbag to stage the working-class history of Mumbai, so he “immediately got in touch” with Ramanathan, “and said, ‘I’m interested.’”

By the early 2000s, the Mumbai of the mill workers—and, it could be argued, that of Shanbag’s parents—had all but disappeared. The Great Bombay Textile Strike of the 1980s, in which over 250,000 textile-mill workers downed tools in protest of existing wage structures, was the city’s last great battle between organised labour and the owners of capital. As the mills shut down and a generation of workers was locked out of jobs, the districts in which they had lived and worked were transformed almost beyond recognition.

“I met trade unionists and activists and mill-worker families. I attended hearings in the Labour Court and High Court,” Ramanathan said. For characterisation, Ramanathan drew on the evocative oral history recorded in Neera Adarkar and Meena Menon’s One Hundred Years, One Hundred Voices: The Millworkers of Girangaon. “Finally I wrote something akin to a play,” he said. “Sunil seemed to think it was stageable, and we were on.”

Cotton 56, Polyester 84, as Ramanathan titled his play, heralded a new style of working for Shanbag, with a new artistic voice and a marked stress on research. The actors brought further depth to their roles by watching live performances in Girangaon, and attending labour court hearings where they could sense the despair of the disenfranchised workers.

During the research for Cotton, Shanbag also began tapping into skills he learnt making documentary films. “For the longest time,” Shanbag said, “I had kept these compartments separate: theatre and everything else. But with Cotton, I saw that I could bring these two interests together.” Further inspiration came from the performance poetry of Annabhau Sathe, the lok shahir, or people’s poet; and from Jayant Pawar’s Marathi play Adhantar, which presented Mumbai’s working-class history focussing on a mill-worker’s family.

Shanbag and Ramanathan made an unusual choice: they asked Chetan Datar, a renowned Marathi theatre director and playwright—and one-time Dubey protégé—to translate Ramanathan’s English text into Hindi, but using Marathi syntax. This produced interesting results. Shanbag told me people who saw the play later came up to him to say, “Yeh Hindi mein kab kiya? Hum to Marathi version dekhey they pichle saal.” (When did you do this in Hindi? We watched it in the Marathi last year.)

Cotton is perhaps the most important Hindi play about Mumbai since the liberalisation of the Indian economy. The play represents Mumbai’s working-class culture with a clear and conscious emphasis on the politics surrounding it. For audiences across classes, it became a window to a living history that was arguably more immediate and affecting than other studies of the subject. The production went on to win Best Original Script and Best Play at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards in 2007, and has since been performed more than eighty times in venues across the country: from the Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai and the Kamani Auditorium in Delhi, to trade union halls in the Vidarbha region in eastern Maharashtra.

Staging such an openly political play wasn’t always easy. One morning in September 2006, Shanbag and his cast and crew prepared to present Cotton at a noon matinee in the Vasantrao Deshpande Hall in Nagpur. It was to be the second of three shows in Vidarbha, where Arpana was hosted by a number of Dalit and Leftist groups. The pre-show frenzy was considerably heightened by rumours that the police had refused to issue a performance license for the show, which is required for any public performance in Maharashtra. Just before noon, the hall was plunged into darkness, but the crew continued to work in torchlight, assuming nothing worse than a power cut. Soon, however, the hall manager told Shanbag to pack up. He had orders “from above.”

By 2.30 pm, the team received official communication from the police, who cited a procedural reason for denying the license. A truckload of armed police was posted outside the hall. The police action may have been motivated by the fact that Shanbag’s sister, Anuradha Ghandy, was by then a widely recognised underground radical—a member of the central committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), and a leader of what is perhaps India’s largest feminist organisation, the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan (Revolutionary Organisation of Tribal Women). She was also known to have formulated the Maoists’ policy on caste and gender, rejecting the orthodox Marxist position that “caste is class.”

Just as it began to look like the Cotton team had made the trip in vain, the members of the Vidrohi Sanskritik Chalwal, a group of Dalit poets, workers and political activists, arrived to escort the cast to a different venue for an informal interactive session. At a hall two kilometers from the scheduled venue, the actor Nagesh Bhonsale, who played the protagonist, Bhausaheb, opened the session with the play’s first song, and the production’s musicians followed his lead. Sensing the enthusiasm of the performers and the audience, Shanbag gestured for the play to carry on. Sans costumes, sets, props or lights, the actors performed most of the play impromptu. The audience gave them a deafening ovation. “I think for the first time we sensed a oneness with the spirit of the worker characters in the play,” Shanbag said.

AFTER THAT LANDMARK PRODUCTION, Shanbag’s work continued to be marked by careful research, but its politics became less trenchant. His plays, which became more and more masterfully put together, seemed to recede from the realm of political history, focussing instead on performance traditions. Cotton, the 2009 production Sex, Morality and Censorship, and the 2011 Stories in a Song present a neat continuum that demonstrate this particular departure.

Cotton used the narrative devices of powada—heroic ballads—and lok natya, but Shanbag had been equally concerned with the politics of representation in other aspects. He took care to cast appropriately, paying attention to the socioeconomic backgrounds of his performers. Actors such as Charusheela Datta-Sable and Hridaynath Jadhav had experience of the lives of mill workers, and knew the bardic tradition of the shahirs. Sex, Morality and Censorship marked a shift in emphasis. The play used a layered framing narrative: it linked the gentrification of the lavani and tamasha traditions with the censorship battles faced by Vijay Tendulkar’s classic Marathi play Sakharam Binder, by presenting a play-within-the-play. Both the folk traditions, and the context surrounding Sakharam Binder, were staged with great attention to narrative and historical detail. But, unlike with Cotton, the politics fundamental to the play’s subject, such as the caste issues inherent in the gentrification of lavani and tamasha, were not well explored.

Shanta Gokhale, who wrote Sex, Morality and Censorship, distanced herself from the play after disagreements with Shanbag over the script. “There was a period of bitter dispute after which I withdrew mentally and emotionally from the project,” she told me over email. “The play was weighted more towards entertainment than political argument. The growth I had charted for the lavani dancer which was to have been reflected in specially composed lavanis was negated by using popular lavanis from films.” Irawati Karnik, who stepped in to rework the script, seemed to agree. “I wish we hadn’t ended up using popular Marathi lavanis that already had very strong associations among those who knew them.” This tendency to elide political questions was even more marked in Stories in a Song, an anthology of short plays which wove historical and fictional narratives around music, particularly Hindustani music. Ramu Ramanathan told me he was “bewildered” by the play, presumably because of its lack of political criticism.

When we met in July last year, I asked Shanbag about the steady marginalisation of politics in his vision. “I don’t think that’s completely true,” he said. “One of the problems with our traditional arts—be it music, dance—is that they have been unable to tell their stories and their histories outside their little exclusive zones. So first you have to become a paying member of that club, and then you get access, then you can understand it, but if I’m standing and watching from the outside, I feel left out.” Stories in a Song included a short play called Mahatma Gandhi and the Tawaif Sabha, in which a courtesan from Benares stands up to pressure from the Congress to adopt Gandhian ways. Shanbag chose this play, he said, to engage larger themes of tolerance and intolerance. Another short play, Chandni Begum, featured a family of itinerant musicians who keep adapting their music to changing circumstances and patronage. “I think the humanity of struggle, the story of struggle, that is there,” Shanbag said.

In the last few years, the stakes have risen steadily for Shanbag. Cotton was the first of his plays to be frequently performed outside Mumbai. It was funded by the Bangalore-based India Foundation for the Arts, which later also funded Sex, Morality and Censorship. Shanbag, however, bristled at the idea that he is bankrolled. “Actually, my work does not attract as much funding as you imagine. From the last eight productions I have done in ten years, only two have had financial support in a formal way: Cotton and Sex, Morality and Censorship.” (Shanbag’s recent productions were not formally funded, but did attract sponsors: Stories in a Song, for instance, had some shows sponsored by the pharmaceutical company Himalaya and the designer label Louis Philippe, among others.)

As visibility, audiences and budgets have grown, it seems Shanbag has changed. In early 2013, as we talked on the phone about his latest play, Club Desire, which premiered in Mumbai in October that year, he told me that the stress was building up. He was, he confessed, “drinking more, smoking more.” His plans had turned much bigger and more daunting. When he was negotiating production costs for Club Desire with the National Centre for the Performing Arts, which eventually signed on as a co-producer, he told me, “Theatre is no longer innocent.” I sensed in his lament a satisfaction at his success, but there was real nostalgia for the “innocent” days—the days, for example, of the Chhabildas movement, when the audience and the performers “literally sweated it out together.”

WHEN WE MET IN JULY LAST YEAR, it was in Shanbag’s office in the suburb of Santa Cruz, on the first floor of a modest building just off SV Road, one of Mumbai’s permanently clogged arteries. Furnished simply with old wooden furniture, lined with glass-fronted bookshelves, the office was dominated by a circular coffee table littered with books, on art, music and, in most cases, theatre. Shanbag eagerly showed me new additions to his collection. Every spare square inch of the walls was covered in posters, mostly for his plays. The office, steeped in theatre history, resembled the man himself—unassuming, engaging and welcoming.

Irrespective of the rising pressure and occasional disappointments, what has remained absolutely unchanged about Shanbag over the years is his interest, and investment, in people. Swar Thounaojam, the author of Turel, a play Shanbag directed in 2007, told me, “I sent him a new play and he read it and met me to discuss it and all, which I don’t find senior directors doing for young playwrights. He creates a very trusting environment where you can dissent. I love that about him.”

When I worked with him in 2011 on Walking to the Sun, two aspects of Shanbag’s personality stood out: his artistic faith in the script once it was finalised, and his personal faith in creative discussions. We disagreed on various minor points, but he rarely invoked directorial privilege. On one occasion, when I was stubborn about keeping a particular monologue, he ran a few shows with it. He tried to persuade me to edit it, but I wouldn’t; finally he gave it the chop, and emailed me to let me know. He had tried his best to reason with me, and, in hindsight, I realise he was right. In our conversations, Shanbag often complained bitterly about the detachment of the current crop of theatre practitioners. “Actors today say ‘We are doing your play.’ Everyone is so busy doing other work that there is no ownership. Where is the time?”

On the bookshelf behind Shanbag, I noticed three copies of Scripting the Change: The Selected Writings of Anuradha Ghandy. On 12 April 2008, at the age of fifty-four, Ghandy died of malaria contracted in the jungles of Jharkhand. Her writings, scattered across many journals and newspapers and often carried under pseudonyms by underground publications, were compiled into a book in 2012. I had gone to great lengths to get the book, which sold out within months of its release. Shanbag had never discussed his sister with me, but now I asked him for a copy. He gave me one. “But Vivek, it’s very dense writing,” he told me, as if to distance himself from its political arguments. This put me in mind again of his reluctance to characterise his own work as political. I had often wondered whether this tendency was simply a way of making his plays more acceptable to his audience, or whether it was born of Shanbag’s realistic sense of the the limitations of theatre. Later, I added another possible explanation for this reluctance: it may have been related to Ghandy, the sacrifices she had made, and their consequences for the Shanbag family.

Shanbag’s voice softened when he spoke about her, and became almost wistful. “My sister went into the far-Left, you know, and things had reached a point where we stopped discussing politics,” he told me. “Time spent with her was so little that none of us thought it was important to waste it on political debate. We just felt it was far more important to connect at a human level, you know, spend time together and not argue. Everybody’s political position had been fixed by that time.” Shanbag identifies his own political position as “liberal.” Yet the weight of Ghandy’s legacy is apparent.

“I think a large part of the sense of responsibility I feel, that my work has to have some meaning, comes from her,” Shanbag said. “Her way of looking at cinema, art—she was very into popular culture. Even when she was underground she used to see more films than I ever saw. She would sneak in and see my plays. I would never know she was in the audience. I’d come to know six months later.” Shanbag valued his sister’s direct criticism. “Not even in an intellectual way at all, but—what was the meaning of something? What kind of messages were you sending out?”

He seemed to credit Ghandy with keeping his work honest. “To this day, I feel extremely uncomfortable with doing something which, in that sense, is flippant.” He told me that, professionally, he found it difficult to “relax and have fun sometimes … My work is too closely tied up with the memory of my sister and what she stood for. This is how I see it.”

Even on occasions when Shanbag defends his work against criticism that it has moved away from politics, he never contests the fact that a play must be politically progressive.

“At the end of the day, I see a lot of people from my time—my peers and my sister’s contemporaries—many of whom seem to have sold out, from what their political positions were, and today we’re part of a very different world. They’ve done very well, but you meet them, somehow, there’s a sense of guilt. Thank god I don’t have to live with that.”